In 2003, just as I was arriving in China as a correspondent for The New York Times, tectonic changes were coming to the worlds of internet commerce, search and social media. But their rumblings were so deep beneath the surface that few could have predicted their long-term consequences.
That year, Alibaba, a four-year-old web company that had started out of an apartment in Hangzhou, fended off an ambitious push by eBay into China’s e-commerce market by eliminating merchant fees for Taobao, Alibaba’s own e-commerce platform, even as it was losing money. The move helped put Alibaba on the road to becoming the world’s biggest seller of goods online and its founder, Jack Ma, one of the world’s richest men. It was part of a series of measures, both public and private, that were meant to create “national champions” for the internet in China, meaning companies that would compete vigorously for business globally, while getting help from Beijing in keeping foreign companies out of their home market.
Fast forward to 2011, by which time I was living in New York, and more big news about the internet in China suddenly arrived, this time like a thunderclap. Numerous friends in China as well as Chinese nationals living abroad wrote to urge me to sign on to something called WeChat, which had overnight become the must-have cellphone app for staying in touch, and very soon thereafter, an almost unimaginable array of other services.